'Lowering Higher Education'

With colleges under intense pressure to find new sources of revenue, many are applying business ideas or creating closer ties to corporations. In their new book, Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education (University of Toronto Press), James E. Côté and Anton L.

February 23, 2011

With colleges under intense pressure to find new sources of revenue, many are applying business ideas or creating closer ties to corporations. In their new book, Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education (University of Toronto Press), James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar call on colleges to step back and consider whether these trends result in the sacrifice of important academic values. Côté and Allahar, both professors of sociology at the University of Western Ontario, responded to e-mail questions about the book.

Q: How do you define the "corporate university"?

A: The corporate university is one that, in the face of declining government funding, is increasingly dependent on corporate sponsorship and funding to carry out its traditional tasks of teaching and research. It literally sells physical space on the campus to corporations, accept[ing] financial donations for building projects and endowments of chairs, replete with the corporate brand. In the process, the university cannot bite the hand that feeds it and so must mute criticisms of specific corporations or of the entire process of corporatization itself. In Canada, the latest controversy is over the new Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, and a grassroots movement has begun there among students and faculty to counter these developments.

At the same time, universities are not only increasingly indebted to corporations, they are corporations themselves, run with corporate management techniques, carefully constructed brands, and aggressive sales (i.e., recruitment) staff. The annual budgets of some larger universities are greater than those of some nation states. As the marketplace takes over, learning for its own sake is replaced with a means-end market mentality, including the caveat emptor motto of the modern market where products (degrees supposedly leading to well-paying jobs) come with few or no guarantees. At one end of this Edubis spectrum are publicly funded schools that continue to recruit like crazy but spew out many empty degrees from pseudo-vocational programs for jobs that are either in short supply or nonexistent, and at the other end are private online schools that do the same but recruit more aggressively and spew out non-accredited degrees (the latter problem has been well-covered recently by Inside Higher Ed).

Q: Many universities have long had ties to business -- receiving grants for research, training business leaders, appointing executives to boards and so forth. Was there a key turning point when the relationship reached another level, that of the corporate university?

A: This is a sound question, but it may be difficult to pinpoint a specific turning point. Rather, the idea is to understand how the corporatization has led increasingly to the transformation of the university into a pseudo-vocational institution. Along with the wider culture of consumerism, materialism and individualism, university education is now viewed narrowly as a ticket to a job, not as a means to cultivating a well-rounded and informed citizenry. The very language of the new pseudo-vocational university emphasizes "training" over "education." The whole turn to policy-oriented teaching and research smacks of the corporate agenda, and traditional learning and research as ends in themselves are all but dead in the modern university.

The most recent turn can be located during the cultural wars that wracked universities in the late 20th century. The infighting among the old Left, postmodernists, and the Right distracted the professoriate from the university mission, allowing a corporatization of universities to go uncontested for decades, wherein pseudo-vocationalism crept unnoticed into certain hitherto liberal programs, eclipsing the citizenship function, and converting the contemporary university into an extension of the corporate world.

Q: How have these trends changed academic life for professors?

A: Younger professors have fallen into place. Indeed, they are also products of the corporate university; many have been narrowly “trained” rather than broadly educated. They are all about policy-oriented research and seek funding not from academic bodies but from corporations and other sources of private funds with vested interests. The more established professors are quite cynical about the changes they are witnessing and where ultimately they will all lead. Many of those over 55 are biding their time and showing reluctance to becoming too involved in the entire “enterprise.” The professoriate is no longer what it was held up to be even two or three decades ago and the corporate life of the professor is not being relished by many senior professors.

Q: Why do you link this trend to the disengagement of students?

A: The corporate model treats students like customers, and as customers they expect services and products for their tuition fees. The services include high grades in return for little effort. The products include guaranteed credentials with a guaranteed value. With this sense of entitlement, most will not prepare for classes, and expect all material to be told to them in simple terms in entertaining classes. What is lost here is the implicit bilateral contract of higher education for students to meet their teachers "halfway." When students put out the effort to partner with professors in the teaching/learning process, classes assume their proper place as the “tip of the iceberg” of learning rather than the "iceberg." Programs that require students to learn only in classes — thereby misleading students that classes are the "iceberg of learning" — are little more than (pseudo-) vocational high schools. We now have many universities where a “culture of disengagement” prevails and students in this culture have a sense of “entitled disengagement” never found before in institutions of higher learning (i.e., while grade inflation and disengagement can be found in the past, never have both simultaneously occurred in such proportions and been condoned by universities).

But it is not just the students who are disengaged. Many faculty members are also, and following recent savage cuts to budgets, so too are many university staff members. In Ivory Tower Blues, we tied disengagement to the wider culture of entitlement and empowerment. Now in Lowering Higher Education, we can more clearly see the disengagement on the professors' side as the corporate culture has come to eclipse what was formerly a quite special “job.”

Q: How different do you see the situation of the corporate university in Canada and the United States?

A: We don't see a great deal of difference. In fact, we might even argue that the U.S. has led the way, and as in so many other economic changes, Canada is merely following in lockstep. In Canada, we are perhaps watching a process that is already more advanced in the U.S., and can therefore see its insidious nature more clearly.

Q: What should be done to bolster liberal education?

A: The conclusion of the new book speaks directly to this, listing our own recommendations for Canada and the recommendations of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) for both Canada and the U.S. We also provide a section concerning what not to do, including following the example of the U.K., where schools consciously seek out the "disengaged student market" and provide them with (pseudo-) vocational programs of dubious merit and relevance in the labor force.

In our view, restoring the liberal education is about: a return to standards; stemming the tide of grade and credential inflation; treating the university as a place and a space where politics and vote-getting have no place; removing the idea that the university credential is a ticket to a job, or a place where one goes to get "job training." Universities are not vocational institutions and should not have to answer to the same bottom line. Liberal programs that have been turned into pseudo-vocational ones need to be returned to their original missions.


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